Saturday, November 28, 2009


Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 29th of November 2009 at
3 - 5.05 pm

CONDUCTOR (1948-2008)

BRITTEN: Owen Wingrave, an opera in two acts
Owen Wingrave............ Peter Coleman-Wright
Spencer Coyle.............. Alan Opie
Lechmere...................... James Gilchrist
Miss Wingrave.............. Elizabeth Connell
Mrs Coyle..................... Janice Watson
Mrs Julian..................... Sarah Fox
Kate............................. Pamela Helen Stephen
General Sir Philip Wingrave/
Narrator........................ Robin Leggate
Tiffin Boys' Choir, City of London Sinfonia
Richard Hickox (Chandos CHAN 10473)

For those who want a dead body (or two, or three, or more) at the end of an opera (Bohème, Tosca, Traviata, Tabarro, Grrrimes) listen to this:

Here we have an opera composed for television, in which Benjamin Britten's pacifism (as proclaimed in his War Requiem) is implanted in a chilling supernatural tale (by Henry James, as was The Turn of the Screw), with the main character's death at the end (like Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Rape of Lucretia, Death in Venice).

The fighting Wingraves are an English family with a long history of soldiering, but young Owen is rebelling against his training at "the military cramming establishment in Bayswater", preparing him for Sandhurst. He tells his tutor Spencer Coyle (John Shirley-Quirk): 'I know their fighting and their sacrifice. I will have none of it. I despise a soldier's life'.

I have a 12" disc of 'highlights' (not the right word: just the whole thing with gaping bloody wounds!) taken from the first recording (1970), English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Britten himself, and so I have the libretto (but not all of it!).

The cover has a picture of Act 1 Scene 7, showing the whole cast at dinner (filmed at the Maltings concert hall in Snape), with a young Benjamin Luxon (Owen) at the end of the table, Peter Pears with whiskers (Grandad Wingrave) at the head, and lovely Janet Baker (Kate) smiling at him (she is not looking at me [ )-:] even though I have watched her from beside the stage in the Melbourne Town Hall as she sang Elgar's Sea Pictures so thrillingly).
She would be saying to him:
'How good to see you well enough to dine, Sir Philip'.
But his daughter Miss Wingrave (Sylvia Fisher) retorts that he has been absent merely because he did not like the company (meaning Owen).
'Am I not good enough?'
'Oh, Kate, Kate, you keep me young.'

Of course, the party breaks up in acrimony, when the old campaigner deplores Owen's anti-war stance. Of the four women, only Mrs Coyle (Heather Harper), the wife of the military instructor, has sympathy for Owen and his 'scruples'. The three Furies shout that scruples are for milksops, parsons, weaklings, and adolescent boys (and for women, Sir Philip puts in).

In the face of this onslaught, Owen rises and declares: 'I'd make it a crime to draw your sword for your country, and a crime for governments to command it'. The General stalks out (albeit hobbling and helped by a man-servant) and the others follow. End of Act 1.

In the next act they continue their attacks on Owen, and his grandfather disinherits him. In the love duet (!) Kate calls him a coward, and goads him into proving his brave heart by sleeping in the haunted room (it is inhabited by the ghosts of a former Wingrave father and the small son he killed for not fighting when challenged by a playmate, and this general was later found dead there). These restless spirits do walk upon the stage, but do not talk or sing.

Kate locks Owen in, and in the end they find him dead. In a sense, he had done his duty and died like a soldier on the battle field, to win his grave. There would be no more Wingrave army officers.

Note that this was set in the time of the warlike imperial Queen Victoria, and the libretto was written by Mrs Myfanwy Piper.

Benjamin Britten was a pacifist (he composed his War Requiem to demonstrate it), and so was his life-partner Peter Pears. When the BBC commissioned an opera from BB he came up with one based on another of Henry James's tales of the supernatural (a ghost story, like The Turn of the Screw). And the part he gave to PP (as he always did, softly softly) is a gruff old general of a
soldiering family who is aghast when his grandson Owen (the last of his line) will not undertake training at the military academy. It is in the reign of Queen Victoria, and all the women of the Wingrave household (including his sweetheart Kate) are scolding Owen for his pacifist scruples,
and even cowardice. Eventually he dies mysteriously in the haunted room of the family mansion; he had allowed Kate to lock him in it, to prove his bravery. Mission accomplished: there would be no more Wingrave warmongers.

More about the occupants of the haunted chamber (and the conductor Richard Hickox, who was also found dead in a room in the year he made the recording we will hear, and you can not blame the Pharaoh's curse for this) and other details of this opera under the click-on headings above.

Ben Britten did not write background music, and I find it hard to pick up the words when sung, even with earphones, so concentration is needed. It is all speech-singing; there is nothing like the themes (tunes?) in the Sea Pictures in Peter Grimes that you can hum and whistle.

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